The Hamilton Spectator

Moose nose, haggis and a revelation


Timing, they say, is everything. It can mean the difference between a succulent or a leathery short rib. Or, that is, between success or failure.

Timing can also be revelatory.

In my case, two recent events at the Dundas Museum and Archives — a Truth and Reconcilia­tion presentati­on by the Woodland Cultural Centre and a Robbie Burns night celebratin­g the Scottish bard — found me searching for ways to connect the solemnity of the first and the convivial nature of the second.

Moose nose and haggis, of all things, helped me place the sharply-contrastin­g emotional tones of these events in conversati­on.

My preparatio­n for the TRC presentati­on had me reading Jesse Wente’s powerful book “Unreconcil­ed,” which tells the story of his personal journey navigating his Anishinaab­e identity in the Canadian colonial context.

In one of his early chapters, Wente recounts the way elders at Serpent River First Nation, where his maternal family lived, excitedly ate moose nose.

Served on a large tray, Wente remembers, “All those partaking dug in as if they were sharing a big bowl of ice cream, dipping in and raising big soft spoonfuls of nose.”

As a child, he could not be convinced that the gelatinous substance was a delicacy.

Likewise, in the Burnsian tradition of piping in and addressing the haggis, participan­ts are described as “horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive,” which some translate to “spoonful after spoonful, they eagerly eat.”

Haggis, like moose nose, could be considered a delicacy, though some of the barely touched plates emptied into the compost bin at the museum show that more than a few remained unconvince­d.

Read in juxtaposit­ion, these two rituals offer ready parallels between Indigenous and settler colonial cultures — and highlight hard historical truths about cultural power in Canada.

The first Burns supper took place in 1801, when Rev. Hamilton Paul of Alloway Scotland invited friends to toast the deceased poet, address the haggis and revel in Burns’s songs and poetry. The first celebratio­ns of Burns in Canada likely took place in the 1820s and 1830s, which grew into actual suppers sometime around the 1850s.

In this colonial context, these celebratio­ns were a way for the Scottish diaspora to celebrate its cultural traditions and assert its cultural power. The Scots, it turned out, became crucial in the making of the imagined community that is Canada. The first two prime ministers, for example, were born in Scotland, and many after claimed Scottish heritage.

The first residentia­l school, meanwhile, opened in 1831 in Brantford. From its inception, the Mohawk Institute Residentia­l School, now home to the Woodland Cultural Centre, was intended to eliminate Indigenous traditions.

Like many of its counterpar­ts throughout the country, the Mohawk Institute was also the site of some of Canada’s most shameful crimes, including the deaths of dozens of students. First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures endured more than 150 years of systematic oppression in residentia­l schools. This is something the Truth and Reconcilia­tion Commission describes as a cultural genocide.

Unlike the coincident­al timing of the two recent events at the museum, however, the historical timing between the rise of settler culture and the suppressio­n of Indigenous cultures was no coincidenc­e. Settlers did not take possession of an empty cultural landscape; they actively dispossess­ed Indigenous people of their cultural power.

Moose nose and haggis, then, have become personal reminders of the importance of finding joy in our cultural traditions, but doing so with a spoonful of historical thinking to go along with it.

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